The internet as a whole has not been kind to Zack Snyder. Small wonder, when the man’s job appears to be nothing more than screwing up beloved comic book characters and misunderstanding feminism so hard he accidentally created a singularity that also somehow wears a fedora. I’ve been mean to him a couple times, and even took a shot at him in one of my books. Writers are petty like that. Now, ignoring for a second that he’s a multimillionaire, I’m pretty much nobody, and goofing on Snyder is the very definition of punching up, I haven’t been entirely fair. Because I do like one Snyder movie, and I’m going to talk about it. That movie is the 2004 remake of the zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead.
It probably says more than he would like that his best movie is also his first. Everything afterwards gets progressively worse, and yes, I’m including the interminable 300 among the bad. No movie that’s at once that homoerotic and homophobic can ever be anything more than a warning to others. With Dawn of the Dead, the studio was taking a chance on a mid-budget remake of a cult property, precisely the kind of film that doesn’t exist anymore. This was an attempt to cultivate an up-and-coming talent, not release the final seal of the apocalypse. Man, I can’t get through an ostensibly positive review without taking shots at the guy. Sorry about that, Zack. Dawn of the Dead really is an enjoyable flick.
It’s also the least Zack Snyder thing he’s ever done. Some of this is due to the oversight the studio had on it. While this wasn’t a huge property, there was a chance for dollar signs. They didn’t want to do anything too experimental with it. And, to be fair, Snyder’s relentlessly nihilistic outlook is a much better fit for zombie stories than it is for the four color world of DC Comics. Additionally, the writing credit on the film goes to James Gunn, who you might know as the man who accidentally made the third-best Star Wars movie with Guardians of the Galaxy. With a legitimately good writer at the helm, the slick veneer of a Snyder film can be used in the service of something greater rather than merely masking empty artistic pretension. Gunn is never under the illusion that he’s making great art. He’s a pulp craftsman, far more concerned with telling a good story than explaining why the world is terrible. Hence, Dawn of the Dead is something that none of Snyder’s other dour efforts are: it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The film’s greatest achievement is in its first ten minutes, when we see an emerging zombie apocalypse in the edges. It’s so subtle the main characters don’t even pay attention to it until it’s too late. These kinds of scenes are so rare precisely because they’re so hard to depict. To make an apocalypse both real for the audience and ignored by the protagonists is a nearly impossible tightrope. Most zombie fiction cheats, either with putting the hero in a coma for the first month of the apocalypse (28 Days Later, The Walking Dead), depicting the very first small-scale outbreak (Dead Alive, Return of the Living Dead), or set many years after the end of the world (Day of the Dead, Zombieland, Undead on Arrival). Actually showing what the end of the world looks like to those living through it is delicate work.
Because in a lot of cases, it doesn’t look like much of anything at all. We meet our heroine, Ana (Sarah Polley), working as a nurse in a hospital. A patient, bitten in a bar fight, who came in at the beginning of her shift at six in the morning, is suddenly in the ICU. People are beginning to come in with hideous injuries, but it’s a hospital in the big city. As Ana leaves, an ambulance driver laments that, “It’s starting early tonight.” Ana ignores the few concerned news broadcasts in favor of music, and at home, completely misses a special bulletin. So the next morning, when her home is invaded by a zombie child, it’s a total surprise.
Okay, that’d probably be a surprise regardless.
Ana emerges into a scene of utter chaos. Snyder’s tendency to frame everything as comic splash pages serves him well here as he choreographs Ana’s suburb in the grips of a zombie apocalypse. The film never recaptures the electricity of these early scenes, but that’s hardly a knock against it. Most movies never even achieve these heights. There’s a solid case to be made that these are the best ten minutes in any zombie movie ever.
While the rest of the movie doesn’t really measure up, it’s still a good romp. The zombies are fast — because it’s Snyder, so of course they are — and the action sequences are peppered with gratuitous use of slo-mo. In particular, Snyder is obsessed with the way shotguns expel their shells between shots. All the characters are expert marksman after this, and as dangerous as the zombies are, running headshots are never a problem.
The characters have a bit more depth than the standard corpse-food that stocks these things. The standouts are doomed gun shop owner Andy and CJ (Michael Kelly, most familiar as Underwood henchman Doug Stamper on House of Cards). Andy’s parlor game of sniping zombie lookalikes and his friendship, via long communication with white boards, with stoic cop Kenneth is a highlight. CJ starts out as the kind of guy built to be zombie food, a Randian survivalist who wants to keep the mall safe from looters and the dead. He executes the perfect face turn about halfway through, becoming one of the biggest badasses among the good guys and a reliable source of gallows humor. Snyder’s ugly sexism only really surfaces in the character of too-dumb-to-live Nicole, a character that manages to waste the normally winning Lindy Booth in a thankless role.
When I first saw this one, my review was simple: not as smart as the original, but more fun. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is a legitimate classic, and usually the film people hold up as the greatest zombie movie of all time. It has warts, but it’s also anarchic in a way that only indie films in the ‘70s could be. Snyder’s remake is all studio polish, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the time. Zombie movies should find fun in the midst of the apocalypse, and it’s a pleasant surprise that Snyder managed to do just that.